Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Brilliance of Spinoza

You see a man walking down the road in seventeenth century Denmark, on his way to the marked when a rock, from seemingly nowhere falls from the sky and onto his head. The man crumbles to the ground as you run over to him. He is breathing, but is obviously hurt but in a matter of minutes he sits up and rests along the wall of the building at the edge of the street. One man near by is heard saying, "where did that rock come from? Did you see it?" and soon a conversation is started.

"It must have fallen from the building," another says, joining in.
"But what caused it's fall?"
"Perhaps it was the wind that blew it?"
"Likely," you say, nodding your head. "But what caused the wind to blow such?"
"Ah, the waves, just beyond the city brought them."

The conversation goes on like this for some time, giving reason and explanation to each cause until all present are finally stumped.

"Well," says the man sitting against the building, rag pressed to his bloodied head, "it must then be the will of God."

I love this analogy of Spinoza's in the appendix to his 1st part of his book Ethics, "Of God" for he says, that to attribute anything as "the will of God" is "the sanctuary of ignorance." While he compares this to many things that are still relevant today, such as the human body and evolution, today I want to focus on one of my favorite subjects, suffering. Specifically, the suffering of the man struck by the rock on his head.

It is interesting that Spinoza keys in on this understanding of people that when something is unexplainable that we must ultimately attribute it to "the will of God" or some variation. We see this in Job. Job's suffering, as his friends readily point out, is due to his own fault, causing God to bring about his suffering. They cannot grasp the concept in this narrative (mostly due to culture) of his suffering just being that--suffering. There is no cause to it, especially none from God.

Spinoza argues that it is pointless and absurd to attribute any suffering to God for several reasons. Mainly, because (in his understanding) God is everything. He titles God as the substance. "By substance I understand what is in itself and is conceived through itself, that is, that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed." In other (clearer) words, God, in order to be capital "G" God must contain within himself all things. He is everything, everywhere, etc.

So, how does this help us Mormons whom have a God that is not everywhere and in everything? Well, there are many ways that I could argue, but let's stick with one for now. It is in the results of this view of God, coupled with an understanding of suffering just being suffering that Spinoza then argues how we are to treat things in life that effect us. Spinoza goes on to say that we are to reach for a higher perfection constantly, and in order to do this we must recognize first that we will always experience suffering. Things will constantly be acting towards us in negative ways, but that in having a greater knowledge of those things will help alleviate the pain.

So, rather than the man, bleeding on the sidewalk, shrugging his shoulders saying that his pain was ultimately God's will, his is empowered by understanding (or recognizing that he does not have a full comprehension) why he was hurt. Simply put, the rock fell. Spinoza argues that it is reason that helps combat against suffering more than labeling its cause (falsely) ever could. Like Job, if his friends could realize that his suffering was not caused by God's vengeance they likely would have been better comforters.

Our view of God is not one of an omnipotent being. It can't be and shouldn't be. There are too many holes in that view. But, through reason, we can understand that omnipotence is not needed and that God has nothing to do with the cause of our suffering. We arrive (through different means) at the same conclusion that Spinoza does. God does not cause our suffering, but is a part of it through empathy and grace. And in being a part of it, it allows us to accept it and attempt to over come it or at least accept it. This isn't to say that this knowledge, and through reason we will easily overcome anything that comes our way. But through the use of reason, and understanding what Spinoza argues we can slowly (so slowly) move to a greater perfection, which is, ultimately, what this gospel (a gospel centered around progression) is about.

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